we are tourists, we are attractions

Our visits to tourist attractions like Jama Masjid or the Red Fort often reminded us that Westerners weren’t the only tourists in Delhi. There’s a middle-class India thriving far beyond Saket Citywalk Mall, and many of them are just as interested in their nation’s heritage sights as we are. Coming to Delhi from second- and third-tier cities around the region, these tourists have the same goal as we do: to take pictures of things they can’t see at home. But while our list includes sidewalk tailors, roadside shrines, and alley pigs, their list includes Western tourists.

Jenny and I are proud to possess the first white skin many Indians have ever seen in person. It was not unusual for a baby to suddenly be placed in our lap as we rested in a shaded area of a tourist sight, the mother posing her child for the picture without uttering a word to us. Nor was it unusual for mustachioed, middle-aged men to come up and start conversations that always culminated in photo requests. (“From which place?” they’d ask with a genuine interest never shown by jaded Saket Citywalkers. “You like India? Yes? Take picture?”)

Most entertaining of all were the gangs of college-age girls who’d crowd around us, giggling and stroking Jenny’s hair, giving us their email addresses and offering invitations to visit their hometowns.

Teenage boys rarely approached us directly, on the other hand, choosing instead to pretend to deeply scrutinize an SMS as pretext for holding their cameraphones at picture-snapping angles as they walked by. Except at Jama Masjid, where the teenage boys all loitered at the top of the mosque’s forty-meter minaret, waiting for their lookout to spot a female tourist entering the claustrophobic stairs that are barely wide enough for two people to pass. Then they’d file casually down the narrow stairwell as their victim went up, their hands just coincidentally held in perfect breast-brushing position.

At first we were quite offended by the photo requests, wondering how people could be so rude as to treat us like alley pigs or sidewalk tailors. Jenny made sport of teasing the men who approached her, agreeing to “take a picture” and then pulling out her own camera and snapping a shot after shot until the baffled men left her alone.

But as time went on, and our own photo album swelled with pictures of vegetable vendors, wandering sadhus, and streetside omelet makers, we realized our hypocrisy: if we found the people around us to be fascinating, beautiful, and photo-worthy—subjecting them to sudden evaluations of angle and light, followed by the sudden blink of our black lens and then our sudden disappearance without so much as a thank-you—it was morally dishonest not to accept ourselves as objects of equal interest.

We vowed to happily accept photo requests from that moment onward, putting broad grins on our faces while anybody who pleased put their arms around our shoulders and stared expressionlessly into their cameras. We made ourselves equally open to the cameraless people who just wanted to shake our hands, although they always seemed far more interested in shaking Jenny’s hands then my own.

Our experience came full circle when we realized how much more we liked it when people asked permission to take our photo than when they attempted paparazzi-style photos from afar. We decided to give our photographic subjects the same consideration: instead of suddenly stopping, snapping, and speeding off, we got in the habit of requesting permission for pictures, and then thanking people profusely and showing them the output on the screen. Not only did our interactions with people become more satisfying, but our photos got better as well.

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28 responses to “we are tourists, we are attractions

  1. Hey really liked your blog..nice stuff..you guys still in india or left?

  2. It was fun to read the blog, just the feeling I got when i saw ‘Slumdog millionaire’. you r danny boyl my friend!!

  3. Ha ha.. the first photo is hilarious. I don’t know the reason but I just burst out laughing seeing that one.

    I am eagerly waiting for your book to come out. And hey I want it autographed and may I add ‘photographed’ at the release function :D

  4. I was so confused the first time this happened to me. I was at City Palace in Jaipur and a guy who was with two girls asked me to take a picture. I assumed he wanted me to take a picture of them, so I was reaching for their camera when he suddenly walked over and stood next to me. He told me that his sister wanted a picture of the two of us together. I was pretty amused.

  5. while visiting jaipur, i was trying to get the western tourist out of my frame when she assumed i was requesting a photo with her. she gladly engulfed me in her large hug and posed happily :) it was pretty funny!

  6. I never could understand why western tourists complain so much about random people staring at them or taking pictures of them, when they themselves were randomly taking photos of anything that caught their eye, including babies and children. I mean, try taking a picture of a random kid in the US. You’d be in all sorts of trouble for “child….etc.” But in this case, you’ve got the right attitude, can’t beat ‘em, then join ‘em. Although I have to say, I detest the scrutiny that goes along with looking different. And I particularly feel bad for Jenny. It’s hard to be a woman in Delhi, being groped and stared at, etc.

  7. When we were in Amritsar two years ago, my girlfriend was sitting in the sun on the steps surrounding the tank at the Golden Temple and had dozed off (we’d spent a largely sleepless night previously on a coir mattress with about as much give as a phone book). She awoke to find she’d been surrounded by a large Sikh family, who immediately placed a baby in her lap and started taking pictures. By this time, we’d both become quite accustomed to various Indians taking our pictures.

    Our experience with the teenage boys was a little different: we’d generally notice them noticing us and then arguing about who’d be nominated spokesman to come and ask to take our picture.

  8. Great post, as usual. Your experience tracks mine, although I think my group attracted a lot more of the paparazzi-style photographers than it seems you encountered. This may be because we had a larger group (up to six or even eight people at a time); I expect the people who were interested in asking for photos may have been intimidated, and the paparazzi were attracted by the opportunity to get several western women in one shot.

    One guy at the Taj Mahal was particularly amusing–he went to great lengths to act as if he were laboriously composing a shot of the river or the marble inlay. He would spend half a minute or more focused on his “subject,” crouching down and changing position to get the photo “just right,” until he thought we weren’t paying attention. Then, ever so slowly, his camera would drift until it was pointing straight at us.

  9. I had this same epiphany a little while back, but before that, I took great amusement in demanding Rs20 if someone asked to take a picture with me, as well as whipping out my camera in turn to snap pictures of the sneaky camera-phone ones.

  10. :O that first picture is really crazy man… looks like that guy look desperate

  11. oh so nice to hear about your experience in India, i would like to meet you people, if you are in still in Delhi, call me at 09818282665 if you are there, i want you to become a part of India’s biggest doctor patient portal, wacky5.com

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  13. I’ve never wanted a book this badly. It’s like a fresh perspective on the place I’ve been living for most of my life. (Not Delhi, but it has a lot in common with Mumbai, I’m sure)

    Agree with Sudeep. Would love to have a copy autographed and ‘photographed’ at the launch.

    Cheers.

  14. Is that a Sarah Palin look-alike in the second picture?

  15. U inspire me to write and meet more people like urself.Delhi is insane but fun.Be safe and enjoy!!

  16. well .. its always been “the whity is the mighty” in India since 1600s.. the colonial hangover ….may be that’s why the strange sense of liking towards white skins…..lets hope to god we get over it someday … until then … plz bear with us :P

  17. Glad you guys are enjoying the photography experience that India has to offer. I know exactly how you feel – I travelled around north India for a month, and just wearing a hat made me go from Indian to foreigner in the eyes of locals. I was gawked at, beckoned with calls of, “Hello sir, you’re wanting something for good times?” and autos and rickshaws were actually eager to have me as a passenger. The moment I took my hat off, I was no longer worth even a glance :-)

    I digress. Once I got over being stared at and spoken to in English by locals, I unabashedly took pictures and allowed myself to be dragged into groups for photos, and in a small way, dragged further into the India experience that I was craving as a city-bred advertising professional from Bangalore who wanted to know what his countrymen really got up to.

    • Abhimanyu Ghoshal’s comment got to be the biggiest bullshit I have ever heard.

      Abhimanyu …. we like to see you with your hat on. Why dont you post your pic here!!

      • Bullshit? I don’t see the point of just making things up for the sake of entertaining blog readers. Mine was a valid observation which I felt was worth sharing. I look like this: http://abhimanyughoshal.daportfolio.com/about/ (not sure if that’s going to prove anything). – So which part of what I’m saying is bullshit?

        And I’m not really blaming anyone – there are plenty of non-Caucasian travellers in India, so I’m not very surprised that I was mistaken for one.

  18. I think it’s great when traveling a foreign country that you are the minority. It is a conversation starter and makes you seem more approachable.

  19. strange to hear this
    all this does happen in tier 2 cities in India, but if it has happened in New Delhi , I’m sorry for that

  20. karan brother, why are you feeling sorry, can’ you interpret from the writing style of dave & jenny that they are NOT complaining, just describing their unforgettable experiences in a humorous way! take it easy dude.

  21. Ahh, the old “hands just coincidentally held in perfect breast-brushing position” trick. Seen that one many times!

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